How Middle Schoolers Reinvented the First Text Message System

3D Printing & Imaging CAD Education Technology
How Middle Schoolers Reinvented the First Text Message System


On a visit to Sutherland Middle School in Albemarle County, Virginia, I saw groups of students building a motor out of 3D-printed and laser-cut parts plus coat-hanger wire. Up on the screen at the front of the class was a 3D simulation of the motor. The teacher, Robbie Munsey, explained that the students were re-creating a Page motor, named after its inventor, Charles Graton Page, and that the invention was patented in 1854. “Looking at historical inventions is a way for students to interact with technology and understand it,” says Munsey, who, dissatisfied with the science curriculum, wanted to employ more hands-on learning. A Page motor makes it clear what a motor does and how it works, and actually building it brings this home to students.

Initially, Munsey struggled with hard to obtain supplies for more complex projects. He met Glen Bull, a professor at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, who was talking about 3D printing (see Make: Volume 41, “The Lab in the Classroom”). “He let me borrow a really old 3D printer,” says Munsey. “Glen said take it home and see what you can do it with it.” He did, and discovered that the printer was the answer to his supply problem. “You could build anything with it, and I noticed the kids were mesmerized by it,” he says.

Bull invited Munsey to join his online graduate class on edtech. The next challenge in that class was to build a telegraph, and it caught Munsey’s interest. On his own, he built the telegraph. Bull was ecstatic. He asked Munsey if he thought 8th grade students could build one. “Absolutely,” Munsey replied, and he recruited an engineering teacher, Eric Bredder, who ran Sutherland’s makerspace, as a collaborator to make it happen.


Munsey believed that building a telegraph with 3D-printed parts would be practical and meaningful to the students. “I told them that the telegraph was the first text message system ever,” he says. “Modern-day relays are plastic boxes that you can’t open up. Even if you could open them, you wouldn’t understand them. The great thing about these inventions is that we can see how they work.”

Munsey and Bredder gave the students original documents, such as the patent application. Rather than starting with a kit or prepared instructions, students had to learn how it worked and design their own version. They built the telegraph with Autodesk 123D and a new MakerBot. “All of us were surprised by our success,” says Munsey.

Bull was so excited by the work that he suggested they show some people at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. The class created a presentation, and “blew them out of the water,” says Munsey. It resulted in a formal collaboration between the University of Virginia, the Smithsonian, and Sutherland Middle School, and led to an NSF grant.


Later, Bull reached out to Princeton’s Michael Littman, an expert on historical inventions, and he joined the collaboration, with a grad student adding 3D model simulation.

The next challenge was the Page motor. “Tough,” Munsey describes it. “Crazy tough.” But the students succeeded again. “Having built the Page motor, students could learn what’s great about it and what’s not so great about it,” he says. “Then I asked them, what can you do to change it? What would you do to make it better? Can it look even more like the original Page motor?” Munsey was delighted to hear the technical language seep into their conversations — “the commutators have too much friction,” “we’re pulling 3 amps, how do we lower that?” — it was no longer a science project; it became their own project.


“I never once lectured them on any of this. Not a single direct lesson. It wasn’t me pushing curriculum to them; it was them pulling the knowledge in,” Munsey says. “The power of choice is so incredible.”

“Our kids said that by working with the original inventions and studying what the inventors wrote, they honestly felt connected to inventors like Morse,” Munsey says. “When I pointed out that these famous inventors didn’t fully understand what electricity was, I realized that neither do my students. The innovators and the students have holes in their understanding, and we could talk about that.” They learned about the invention, but also how the minds of inventors work a lot like their own.

9 thoughts on “How Middle Schoolers Reinvented the First Text Message System

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  2. Erkko says:

    It’s depressing that one needs a 3D printer and a laser cutter to build such elementary mechanisms.

    Half of the fun of making these, as I remember from when I was a kid, was to figure out how to build parts from popsicle sticks, clothespins, paperclips, toothpicks, empty soup cans, q-tips, ballpoint pens, etc. etc.

    It’s really robbing the kids of the experience and the manual skills and ingenuity, and the out-of-box thinking they could have, by having them press print and recieve a made plastic object. It almost defeats the point of introducing them to the old inventors and their inventions by abstracting away the part where they had to figure out how to actually make things.

    It separates the kids into those who can afford to play around with a 3D printer and those who can’t do anything. It’s like taking an art class using Photoshop on a digitizer instead of cheap acrylics on cardboard.

    1. Erkko says:

      For example, the key of the telegraph is simply two large popsicle sticks or medical spatulas (tongue depressor) with two matchsticks or toothpicks crosswise in between. One at the far end, another in the middle.

      Rubber bands are then placed around the points where the sticks cross, some foil or aluminium tape is wrapped around the free ends of the spatulas for contacts, and there you have a telegraph key. The key can now be glued to a base, such as a couple layers of cardboard squares.

      The same mechanism is then easily appropriated for the relay as well by sticking two nails or screws in opposite directions through the ends of the sticks.

      Moving the pivoting matchstick along the lenght of the spatula changes the spring tension of the lever – a basic lesson in mechanics – which gives the kids a hands-on feedback on how strong their electromagnet actually is and what it can do.

      That’s something you can’t do with the 3D printed object because you’d have to re-make it to change the geometry or design an elaborate mechanism to make it adjustable.

    2. Leland T Long says:

      I agree and disagree. I wonder if you missed the point that these students just did NOT go and press “Print”. They designed the parts themselves using 3D software. Let’s leave the popsicle sticks, clothespins, etc back in elementary and maybe middle school science labs. By the time they are in high school they need the real world experience of designing the parts in 3D software and printing them out, as they did here. Kids adapt and gravitate towards technology. Having experience creating their own designs and printing them will have them much better equipped in todays technological world of Making.

  3. Erkko says:

    Next thing on the list: get a spool of very thin two-conductor wire, like a mile of it, and have the students connect the telegraph key through the spool to the recieving relay. It has to be simple two-conductor or twisted pair wire, so the spool itself doesn’t form a huge inductance.

    Lesson learned: a long wire has a high resistance, and eats up the low-voltage DC signal because you can’t put a lot of current through.

    Solution to the problem: construct a buzzer out of the relay and wire up a simple transformer using two coils and a thick steel bolt to increase the voltage and reduce current on one end, and the opposite at the other end.

    Lesson learned: relays work on both AC and DC; why telegraph systems started using an AC signal instead of a DC: the buzzing signal goes through transformers and can be ramped up and down in voltage, greatly reducing the loss over distance.

    Further lessons: construct a simple microphone and a speaker and transform the system to transmit sound.

    1. Erkko says:

      Or in case you can’t obtain a mile of wire in a spool, construct a black box that simulates a mile of wire with an inductor, a resistor and a capacitor.

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DALE DOUGHERTY is the leading advocate of the Maker Movement. He founded Make: Magazine 2005, which first used the term “makers” to describe people who enjoyed “hands-on” work and play. He started Maker Faire in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2006, and this event has spread to nearly 200 locations in 40 countries, with over 1.5M attendees annually. He is President of Make:Community, which produces Make: and Maker Faire.

In 2011 Dougherty was honored at the White House as a “Champion of Change” through an initiative that honors Americans who are “doing extraordinary things in their communities to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world.” At the 2014 White House Maker Faire he was introduced by President Obama as an American innovator making significant contributions to the fields of education and business. He believes that the Maker Movement has the potential to transform the educational experience of students and introduce them to the practice of innovation through play and tinkering.

Dougherty is the author of “Free to Make: How the Maker Movement Is Changing our Jobs, Schools and Minds” with Adriane Conrad. He is co-author of "Maker City: A Practical Guide for Reinventing American Cities" with Peter Hirshberg and Marcia Kadanoff.

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